It was May 1st 1983 when I was appointed to hunt the Essex and Suffolk Hounds, with the well known Suffolk agriculturalist George Paul and his wife Mary as my Joint Masters. Mastership had finally come my way but now was the time more than ever to put into practice much of what I had learnt over the previous seven plus years. I had been incredibly fortunate in the education I had received and I sure as hell wasn’t going to let those down who had made it all possible. However, before we delve deeply into my four seasons there, I thought it was perhaps an appropriate time to write an in depth article about the role of Masters and the many different challenges that face them today. The responsibilities of sound management are crucial, and with the spotlight being permanently upon us it is hugely satisfying that there are so many people who are prepared to give of their valuable time, making sure hunting has a solid future. This in itself says a lot about our sport, as running a hunt is a complex business at any time but especially during the present climate. We must never forget though that goodwill is not only the driving force behind our survival, it is the glue that keeps it together and should never be neglected or over looked. Although our hunts will not operate without finance, this is probably the number one rule that needs adhering throughout a Mastership, however long it may be and will have huge benefits all round.
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Before we get going, let us just cast back to the year of 1983 and have a look at where hunting was then. Over all it would appear from the outside we were in good shape, however there were problems bubbling beneath the surface which as we know later came to haunt us. Politically we were in a fairly settled time, with a Labour Government looking as though they would, in the words of the late Baroness Thatcher, “never gain power again”. This was a most unfortunate thing to say as it certainly came back to bite us on the backside! We were though in a very different place to where we are now, but despite all the efforts from the opposition and the continued battering hunting has taken, it is still here, in its many different forms, and we should be extremely proud of the fact. This is very largely due to the resilience of countrymen and women up and down the land and also those who have been responsible for the running their Hunts and steering many of them through what from 20005 have been extremely tough times.
During the early eighties it became quite clear that certain Labour politicians were not going to give up on achieving their long term goal. Part of their plan was to do everything they could to encourage County Councils to ban hunting on their land. It did not worry them in the slightest that they were taking clean away the right of the tenant to decide whether they could allow hunting to take place or not. A draconian measure to say the least! It was when hunting was banned in the London Borough of Islington that we knew the lengths they were going to, but they continued to build on their successes and as we know only too well, dealt what they thought was the final blow in February 2005. Although we can always say we could have done more, we put up one hell of a fight that was for absolute certain but listening to reason certainly was not on their agenda. None of us were going to take it lying down and with a huge amount of innovation we rose again from the ashes and although it looks as though we are not going to see any reversal of the act in the near future, we still have everything to play for. Now, as the new season begins, it is not the time to be down hearted, it is the time to celebrate what we do have and to go out there and inspire others in a way that will make them realise that hunting in its truest form needs to be brought back and for common sense to prevail. This is the time more than ever, as old Masters bow out, to give our new incumbents all the support they need to make a success of running the job. They are the sports future, and it is up to us who have been there before to help them be the success they deserve.
Without good leadership and experienced professionals still there to give us a lead across country we certainly would not be where we are today. We more than likely would have sunk without trace, so whilst it easy to criticise those who are in charge or who hunt the hounds we should always find the time to be grateful to them. It is them who put their head above the parapet on our behalf. I know only too well having been there, that fair criticism is fine but there are lorry loads of it out there that isn’t and pacifying everyone can waste crucial time when many important issues need addressing. Some of our old guard are notoriously bad at this and in blunt terms, need to know when to shut up!
If you are a person who now has MFH after their name, remember whilst it may be very rewarding to have the title of Master of Foxhounds, it also can mean, More Fool He or Her! Primarily it is most important for you to enjoy it, for not doing so will bring great despondency to you and your family. There is always the danger then, if one isn’t verycareful, that large amounts of alcohol will be consumed and fags partaken of. Of course this can equally be the case when it is all going along nicely as some well known Masters and former Masters know well. So as we are constantly reminded it should be everything in moderation but some of us weren’t very good at that! Whilst there are very heavy responsibilities on Masters up and down the country demonstrating to the population as a whole that we are a decent and caring section of society is vital. One foot wrong with nothing done about it leads to a mountain of problems but more about that later.
For a new Master life after May 1st is never going to be the same again! Starting with constant phone calls, more than likely just at the time you are about to eat your evening meal but having taken on this great responsibility it cannot be ignored, even though your wife or husband will soon be nagging you to take the b…… phone of the hook! It is always wise to try and resist that pressure if you can, especially after hunting as there may well be a farmer trying to contact you to discuss key issues that have occurred during the day. Of course there are times that all Masters need to relax but that is what night time and a bed is for! Whilst at the sharp end, your Hunt is very much under your watch and you can never completely take time out unless there is someone to cover for you. As you progress through the summer, the number one priority must be to get out there and visit every farmer over whose land you are likely to cross during the coming season. Depending on your country this often has to be undertaken within a very narrow window of opportunity as by the time they have finished lambing you can bet your life time will fly and harvest will soon be upon them. However keen your farmers are, they certainly won’t want to see you when delivering a lamb or when covered in dust having just come down from the combine to meet you. Timing is of great importance, as is the way you present yourself to them. There is no hard and fast rule, but just be normal and if there have been problems in the past that they want to hit you with, don’t argue, be humble and ensure they get a clear message that you want to put things right. This can be easier said than done but you will develop a knack for it, just don’t rush yourself or them as that will certainly backfire!
During your summer visits it may be wise to have a map with you, although I personally did not do this, preferring to go to a point where you can see various landmarks, such as church towers and spires, radio masts, grain silos etc and try and imagine all the farmers you have seen that feed back to those points. Their boundaries will then become clear in your mind and you will gain great satisfaction from this when asked by one of your subscribers whose land you are on! A map on the hunting day does not look very professional, and can add to unnecessary clobber in your hunting coat but after a day’s hunting I took a huge amount of pleasure in examining them to see exactly where we had been that day. Before you visit also try to gain as much information as you can as this will undoubtedly help you as you progress round what I happen to call, your parish. This is not in a light hearted name, it is because interestingly enough, Masters on their travels round can after a while be looked upon not in a dissimilar way to that of the local rector, who knows everyone and when to call. It is then that you very soon pick up when things aren’t just quite as they should be. This in the rector’s case will be normally over a cup of tea and should be of course for an MFH but it has been known, just occasionally, for it to be something of a stronger nature! If it is suspected that this could occur then make sure somebody is with you to drive you home! Taking your Huntsman with you is never a bad idea, as he will have great knowledge of the country, not only with who is who but where they have run in previous seasons. This is a very good time for both Masters and Huntsman to build up respect for each other as communication between the two of you on a hunting day is vital for success. Keeping notes from your visits will undoubtedly help you, even if it is only a brief description of the characters you have met. There will always be an occasion when you meet someone out of context and they will know you, and will expect you to know them! The old saying “More people know Tom Fool than Tom Fool knows” comes to mind at this time!
So, as summer progresses you should know your country, and if you are fortunate enough to have been given the dual responsibility of huntsman, your hounds. It will be a busy part of your life and a steep learning curve as there is a great deal to take on board. If you are also employed elsewhere be prepared, you will find running a hunt will takes up an enormous amount of time so please make sure you do not overstretch yourselves. This is when things can start to go wrong and need grasping quickly. The worst case scenario being that nobody has told a farmer that you might be in his area and you end up running there. This can lead to difficult situations and then you will need all the tact and diplomacy you can muster to extract yourselves out of the mire! Always be ready to act and act quickly. Leaving things to the next day, does not always work, strike whilst the iron is hot if you can as people want to see the person in charge. There are no hard and fast rules but nine times out of ten they will have respect for the person who turns up on the door step and explains the situation and if needs be, apologises. Running away is not an option! There will be other situations which undoubtedly will occur during the day and where immediate action is required. If we ignore those we ignore them at our peril, left overnight the incident can fester in the mind and so the transgression will increase!
There will be many events throughout the year that are either run by the Hunt or the Supporters Club and it is important that at least one Master attends as those who run them like to see you there. It is also a good time to really get to know those valuable people who hold your Hunt together. There are a very large number of them, even in the smaller Hunts and Farmers, Subscribers, Foot Supporters, Puppy Walkers, Newcomers, and more, will all appreciate a kindly word from an attentive Master. Take this as a good example, a farmer’s son has slipped over playing rugby and broken his ankle and you have heard about it from a third party. Just the simple question in asking how he is will be greatly appreciated, and not forgotten. It is the very basis of what keeps our communities working together.
The Puppy Show is an important event in most Hunt’s calendar. Putting the summer frocks, suits and bowler hats on one side for a moment, it is the day when the hounds which are the key to all that it is about, become centre stage. The Puppy Walkers who have spent endless hours with them are to be rewarded for their efforts. All this takes place at the Kennels which will have been spruced up for the occasion by the hard working Hunt Staff. Some Hunts do not hold a Puppy Show and if this is the case it is always wise to have an Open Day or something similar. Be it a Staghound, Foxhound, Harrier, Beagle or Basset, they are all in their own way crucially important to our sport, so if you are a Master who is not really interested in them, please just make the effort. You can’t go hunting without hounds that is for sure!
As the season draws closer, combines begin to roll and your equine friends start to gain fitness. Hound exercise takes place with hunt staff on their bicycles, then proceed to horses. Towards the end of August, beginning of September at last it all gets underway. Every aspect of the work you have undertaken during those last few months will hopefully have paid off as the first morning approaches. If you are a new Master, may I wish you well and as I said in the early stages of this article enjoy it, but remember to have your wits about you at all times! All you have to do now is stand up in your stirrups and address the assembled crowd, making them aware of where you are going and the dreaded hunting act which you will have read countless times, as if you have been squatting up for some horrific exam. Then off you go. When you hear the first hound speak, listen carefully, it won’t be long before they all chime in and once they are all in full cry you will know exactly what you have taken on, there is nothing quite like it!